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Cheese in Chinese Cuisine

How many authentic (ie., not fusion) Chinese dishes use, or incorporate, cheese?

When I say cheese, I mean actual cheese -- either from a cow, goat or whatnot.

What I don't mean is "Chinese cheese" or fermented, preserved tofu.

The only Chinese dish I can think of that has cheese is Yunnan Goat Cheese, served sprinkled with sugar and pepper.

Are there others?

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  1. Just what I've gleaned from educational TV, I'm told that the Chinese palate finds dairy products somewhat offensive.
    A generalization for sure, but I'm guessing that you'd be hard pressed to find many dishes incorporating cheese. Though Yak butter/cheese is used widely in Tibet.

    1. Not many....when I was growing up, general consensus was that Chinese didn't tolerate dairy very well. The first time I heard of those cheesey (as in filled with cheese, not referring to cheap) fried wonton appetizer things really threw me.

      1. Not quite about cheese, but here's a related thread.

        1. You're likely to find cheese any place that dairy is a major part of the diet. So in Mongolia you've got sliced and air-dried fresh cheeses, in Tibet there are fresh and hard cheeses, and in the Southwest you find a few goat cheeses. My grandfather had uncomplimentary things to say about a goat cheese he had in a village in Guangxi province, which is probably similar to the Yunnanese stuff.

          But in the middle of the Middle Kingdom, they just don't milk many animals. Without a dairy culture (pun intended), it's hard for cheese to become part of the traditional cuisine.

          2 Replies
          1. re: alanbarnes

            come to think of it isn't kumiss (the semi-national drink of Mongolia) based on fermented milk. Mare's milk, yes but it's still milk.

            1. re: jumpingmonk

              I think in general, it is the Han Chinese who steer clear of dairy. Mongolians are not Han people.

          2. The answer is no, there are no traditional Chinese (or Japanese) recipes that include cheese. For years and years I wondered why, then in researching something else I ran across a well researched scientific paper that said that most Asians are lactose intolerant. TaDAAAH! Why would any culture develop a food product that gave the vast majority of its members a tummy ache?

            I know. I know. Modern Japan has a fetish for cheese of any and all sorts. I suspect that Lactaid distributors in Japan are even richer than cheese mongers! '-)

            I'm too lazy to look it up, but somewhere on the web there is an interesting chart on percent of lactose intolerance among the various Asian population groups.

            29 Replies
            1. re: Caroline1

              ^ I was gonna say this. Also I believe it might draw parallels to alcohol in that it may have something to do with tea?

              Because black and green tea was drunk, the water was boiled and safe. They didn't use milk in their tea. and because tea was safe to drink, alcohol never caught on in such a big way as other places.

              I might be getting that confused, but it's interesting.

              1. re: Soop

                china, like most of asia, has been making wines and liquors out of rice and grains for a very, very long time.

              2. re: Caroline1

                Somewhere I read that the ability to digest lactose into adulthood was a fairly recent mutation for humans. The idea that I'm a mutant has always kind of tickled me.

                1. re: Caroline1


                  See my post above. China's a big place, with dozens of ethnic groups. You're right that lactose intolerance is common - and cheese uncommon - in most of the country. But there are concentrations of people who drink milk and eat cheese. These people may not be ethnic Han, but they are definitely Chinese.

                  1. re: alanbarnes

                    You're exactly right, alan.

                    China is indeed a large place with many many different cultures and ethnicites. To simply pontificate that "Chinese are lactose intolerant" would be akin to saying that "Southern BBQ is always wood smoked".

                    Aside from those who live in Tibet, the Monguls from what I understand consumed quite a bit of sheep and goat's milk

                    1. re: ipsedixit

                      I've actually visited Tibetan villages in the 90's (in Nepal, not actually Tibet or China) that had Swiss-funded cheese factories.

                  2. re: Caroline1

                    << Why would any culture develop a food product that gave the vast majority of its members a tummy ache? >>

                    I think you have the causation backwards there, Caroline. Lactose tolerance probably developed as an adaption to diets containing dairy. And actually, cheese isn't necessarily that bad, depending on the type. Using myself as an example, I'm fine with fairly large quantities of parmesan/pecorino/etc type cheeses. Milk, though, I need to be careful with -- I make enough lactase for some, but only small quantities. So a population eating a relatively low lactose containing product like aged cheese should quickly adapt to it. The han population just didn't incorporate dairy into their diet. It would be fascinating to see if lactase increases in the Japanese population -- gassiness isn't a life-or-death thing, so natural selection won't be much of a factor, but sexual selection surely must be acting here.

                    1. re: tmso

                      Milk has been a part of Japanese school lunch programs for many years and there is still the practice of home milk delivery in many parts of Japan. The research on lactose intolerance seems to be in regards to genetic disposition. The historical lack of dairy in Japanese cuisine (no idea about Chinese) is very likely from the prohibition of cattle under Buddhist rescripts. Once these were abolished in 1860's, cheese and milk became popular, though usually in the context of Western cuisine and not locally adapted recipes. Dairy just doesn't go well with seaweed, fish, and soy-based things.

                      1. re: Silverjay

                        I personally think milk goes very well with tofu and fish. Anyhow, the lack of dairy cows probably comes from a more basic issue: lack of space. A cow requires a lot of pasture. Pigs require less space, so they are more efficient to raise. I've also been told you can get more meat out of a pig than a cow.

                      2. re: tmso

                        I think this is a case where cart before the horse or horse before the cart is optional. The bottom line is that when experiments with dairy (from any animal) result in gastric duress for the majority, the incentive to keep trying sort of falls by the wayside.

                        And yes, for those who have mentioned it, there are pockets in Asia where cheese and milk products are old traditions among population groups that are obviously not troubled by milk products. As a general rule of thumb, the farther east you go on the Asian continent, the greater the development of milk and cheese products, not to mention yogurt in all of its forms. I once narrowly escaped yak butter tea. <whew< That would have made me lactose intolerant, but not from a gastric problem. It's my taste buds that were in revolt!

                        1. re: Caroline1

                          You mean the farther west you go on the Asian continent.

                          1. re: PeterL

                            Exactly. Too much multi-tasking is bad for one's sense of direction. Thanks!

                          2. re: Caroline1

                            Hmm...well, but if lactose tolerance is what humans have developed rather than lactose intolerance, then at some point somebody did find the incentive to "keep trying," otherwise Westerners wouldn't eat dairy either.

                            As for "dairy not going well," I know that many find the combo of cheese and seafood gauche, but screw it, I often like it, even as a purported Italophile—starting with lox and cream cheese / herring and sour cream and going from there. Tuna melts. Oysters broiled with parmesan. Etc.

                            1. re: tatamagouche

                              Not necessarily. The lactose intolerance has a strong tie to certain ethnic groups. You can find lots of information about it on the web. It's not a uniform trait in all homo sapien sapiens.

                              1. re: Caroline1

                                So you're saying it might be not only a matter of tolerance/intolerance but of degrees thereof—that some groups' stronger intolerance might equal lesser incentive?

                                (I could look it up, but that's what I have Chowhounds for!)

                                1. re: tatamagouche

                                  Yup. Basically you've got a pretty good grasp of the overall picture.

                              2. re: tatamagouche

                                In addition to Asians, Native Americans are/were lactose intolerant. There are records of a battle fought about 1000 AD that resulted when a group of Native Americans got violently ill after recieving a bucket of milk from some Viking colonists. The natives thought they had been poisoned.

                                There was no cheese in the Western Hemisphere until the Spanish arrived.

                                1. re: OnkleWillie

                                  Onkle -- I was just thinking about that story as I read this thread. Do you by any chance have a source for it?

                                  1. re: mselectra

                                    It is from one of the Norse Sagas but I don't recall which one. It appears in one or more books I own so I'll look it up and post it here.

                                    1. re: OnkleWillie

                                      That would be Graenlandiga Saga, the story of Erik the Red and his son, Leif Ericsson, and their encounters with the skraelings (native people) in Vinland (North America).

                                      1. re: OnkleWillie

                                        The accounts of the milk incident appear in both the Greenlander’s Saga and the Erik the Red Saga – the two generally referred to as the Vinland Sagas. They refer to events that took place during the second year of Thorfinn Karlsevni’s (or Karlsefni) colonizing expedition to Vinland, A Google search of “vikings milk skraelings” or “thorfinn karlsevni” will bring up more hits than you can cover in a week. The two accounts of the milk incident differ.

                                        1. re: OnkleWillie

                                          Thank you very much! I had heard this story in a conference presentation years ago and periodically meant to find the source since then. Now maybe I'll get around to checking scholarly discussion of it some day. Thanks!!

                                    2. re: OnkleWillie

                                      Most adult MAMMALS are lactose intolerant. Human caucasians are one of the rare exceptions.

                                2. re: tmso

                                  I agree. Most asian americans I know who grew up drinking milk don't have lactose intolerance. I have no problems with it but my parents do. It's partially the nature of enzymes, use it or lose it.

                                  1. re: chowser

                                    It might sneak up on you! As a kid I drank milk at least 3 times a day, but suddenly in my late teens all my lactase deserted me. Same thing happened to my sister and my cousins. I am ever grateful for lactose free milk.

                                    1. re: mogo

                                      Same here, except I no longer drink milk because I don't like it.

                                      1. re: tjr

                                        Me 3, I think mine started in my mid-to-late 20's. At first I thought I had a bad case of food poisoning... but for some reason, I have gotten better the last few years after I start consuming some of the probiotic products.

                                3. re: Caroline1

                                  Okay, wait a second. There is very little lactose in most cheeses. As a practical matter, people who are lactose intolerant can eat most cheeses without any problems. OTOH, perhaps a culture that is lactose intolerant might decide not to explore the permutations of milk. But, then again, one would think that the Chinese, with such a long and distinguished heritage of exploring everything edible, would certainly have sussed out milk in all of its forms.

                                  1. re: Bob Brooks

                                    It likely has to do with the fact that historically the Chinese used cattle mainly as draught animals. Due to the strains that a large population placed on food production coupled with numerous famines, grazing was not the most efficient land use. One Chinese emperor, when told that the starving masses had no rice to eat replied, "let them eat grass!"

                                4. I spent 12 years in Hong Kong and never saw any dishes made with cheese. Certainly my Chinese relatives found cheese quite revolting...

                                  3 Replies
                                  1. re: hollow_legs

                                    That's quite interesting hollow legs. I agree with you that most Chinese folks find cheese revolting -- certainly the older generation (i.e., my parents and grandparents).

                                    But have you been to some of the bakeries or pastry shops in HK? Or even some of the HK style bakeries here in the States? Lots of them have breads and sandwiches made with cheese. I wonder if this is to cater to the younger generation -- i.e. The X and Y generation of ABCs. (how's that for using your alphabets, eh?)

                                    1. re: ipsedixit

                                      My poor mum once cried when she opened the fridge door due to the smell of the cheese emanating from it...

                                      To be quite honest I haven't been back in 10 years; a trip is scheduled next year. I'll certainly keep a lookout for it. I can't imagine many Chinese ever really going for a ripe and runny Stilton!

                                      1. re: hollow_legs

                                        The cheese used by HK bakeries aren't the artisinal types. They're sort of your basic American sliced yellow cheese, and maybe cheddar.

                                        There's also a bunch of different varieties of Chinese style tiramisu as well.

                                  2. I wonder if the non-Han Chinese Muslim ethnic groups in the West of China make cheeses, since their cuisine has more in common with Central Asian food.

                                    1. As I hinted at in the first response, I don't necessarily have anthropological evidence as to the whys and wherefors.
                                      I also find it amusing that we can be armchair experts as to why an entire ethnic group develops, or in this case does not develop, a particular food group.
                                      We all have our theories, yes, but does it necessarily point to an intolerance? Or perhaps a revulsion? Or does one precipipate another or vice versa?

                                      To address the OP, all I can say is that as far as I know (which ain't much), Chinese generally don't like cheese. As such, you'd be hard pressed to find cheese based dishes in their repetoire...

                                      3 Replies
                                      1. re: porker

                                        I know of a few "traditional" Chinese dishes that do involve milk, but not a lot. One of the more common is stirfried milk with crabmeat (if you live in the Manhattan area, the Phoenix Garden on 2nd ave. and 40th, serves it ) I've had that, and its pretty good, (its a bit like crab filled scrambled eggs) A cookbook I use had addional information as to the lack of dairy in Chinese cuisine, apperently a lot of the smaller areas that do use dairy products prefer to get them from water buffalo, not cows, and not every part of China has buffalo. Wonder if Mozarella di Bufala sells well there.....
                                        Speaking of cheese in Japan (which someone mentioned earlier) I understand that Japan actually has invented a cheese of their own called Sakura Cheese. They said its flavored with cherry leaves, but I am a little confused about this (don't cherry leaves have cyanide in them? (okay so do almnonds but don't cherry leaves have dangerous amount of cyanide in them?)

                                        1. re: jumpingmonk

                                          It likely has to do with the fact that historically the Chinese used cattle mainly as draught animals. Due to the strains that a large population placed on food production coupled with numerous famines, grazing was not the most efficient land use.

                                          (Repeated from earlier post above...)

                                          1. re: scoopG

                                            This is true, but I would point out that water buffalo are usally used as draught animals as well. In fact it is generally regarded as a superior beast of burden to an ox in many cases (It can pull harder, and is better at doing work in knee deep mud (such as you will often find in a rice paddy) In fact as I recall the term "iron buffalo" is used in may parts of China (and Asia at large) as a colloquial name for a tractor. What I'm trying to get as is it isnt a matter of "cattle are for work, buffalo are for milk" in Asian society; labor is considered the main use of both animals.

                                      2. The only ones I can think of are HK style dishes which would fit under fusion.

                                        3 Replies
                                        1. re: alissers

                                          I also recall reading somewhere that in Macau (whoise cusine would also count as fusion) there is a dish made but stuffing mild cheese into squid and then stir frying it in chinese-style sauces

                                          1. re: alissers

                                            HK style baked lobster with cheese can be ordered at any Cantonese seafood restaurant (even in Hong Kong).

                                            1. re: K K

                                              Any place in particular you would recommend in HK for the lobster cheese dish? Thanks!